cat on a hot tin roof

Discuss word origins and meanings.
Post Reply

cat on a hot tin roof

Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed Jan 04, 2006 10:24 pm

In yesterday morning’s news was the story of a cave-in in a West Virginia coal mine and preparations for an attempt to rescue the 13 trapped miners:
<2006 "I'm proud of him," she said after hearing the news that his team [[mine rescue]] had been placed on standby. “They're like cats on a hot tin roof," she said. "They want to do their job.”—‘Uniontown Herald Standard’ (Pennsylvania), 3 January>
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF was the title of the famous Tennessee Williams play (1955) and later a movie (1958) starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Burl Ives. But I had never thought of it as an expression that existed on its own – but what do I know?

LIKE A CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF: Very uncomfortable, restive, uneasy, nervous, restless, unable to remain still, on tenterhooks, ill at ease. This expression is a more current variant of the British phrase LIKE A CAT ON HOT BRICKS (1862), which has the additional meanings of ‘swiftly,’ ‘nimbly.’ <“Nervous about the big game they were about to play, the team milled about in the locker room like cats on a hot tin roof / like cats on hot bricks.”>. And, in turn, this last expression was preceded by LIKE A CAT ON A HOT BAKESTONE, which appeared in John Ray’s Proverbs in 1678.
<1678 “To go LIKE A CAT UPON A HOT BAKESTONE.”—‘Collection of English Proverbs’ (edition 2) by John Ray, page 285>

<1862 “A well-bred, raking-looking sort of mare . . . Beautiful action she had, stepped away LIKE A CAT ON HOT BRICKS.”—‘Inside the bar’ by G. J. Whyte-Melville, ii. page 248>

<1886 “Lady Mainwaring looked . . . LIKE A CAT ON HOT BRICKS.”—‘Army Society’ by J. S. Winter, xvi>

<1958 “Crook also was LIKE A CAT ON HOT BRICKS.”—‘Death Against the Clock’ by A. Gilbert, page 165>

<1961 “Having become accustomed to this kind of thing myself . . . I have lost that CAT-ON-HOT-BRICKS feeling which I must have had at one time.”—‘Service with a Smile’ by Wodehouse, iii. page 42>
As I have always said, one cannot blindly accept what ‘reliable’ sources tell you, and one must often do some cross-checking and snooping around on one’s own to draw out the real story. That was especially true in this instance. Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins tells us that CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF “has been in wide use in America since the turn of the 19th century.” However, there is no evidence that I could find to support this, and it is almost certainly wrong. The earliest examples in print that have been found by myself and Joan Houston Hall of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), whom I contacted on this subject, are from 1954 – right around the time of Williams' play. So the question remains, did Tennessee Williams coin the expression and if he did, on what basis did he choose it?

Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase & Fable provided some interesting information on the subject:

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF: . . . The title echoes the old English saying ‘like a cat on hot bricks,’ which dates back to at least the 17th century [[I believe that this is incorrect and they are confusing the ‘bricks’ expression with the ‘bakestone’ expression – see above]], and this link is interestingly furthered by the fact that one of the main characters in the Williams’ story is named Brick [[I think this is dubious at best. I would attribute it to ‘brick of a man’ the former all-American-boy, football player]]. The play began life as a short story entitled ‘Three Players on a Summer Game,’ but Williams changed it when he developed the tale for the stage, during which he first introduced Brick’s wife Maggie (‘Maggie the Cat’). The author later explained that his own father had coined the phrase, habitually complaining to his wife that she made him ‘nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof.’


If Williams’ father actually did coin the expression, as Brewer’s claims, or even if it was Williams himself, or perhaps someone else, the question remains, did it just pop into their head fully formed or was it perhaps based on some earlier expression? As I mentioned above, the earliest examples of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF that anyone has found, as far as I can determine, is from 1954:
<1954 "The Federal Security Administration jumped around LIKE A CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF when they were confronted with the situation."—‘The Tri-City Herald' (Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland Washington), 26 August, page 1> [[courtesy of Joan Houston Hall, editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE)]]

<1954 “Speaking of Mr. Williams [[Tennessee]], note the change in title for his impending play. Henceforth, ‘CAT ON A TIN ROOF’ will be known as ‘CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.’ The holder of the Pulitzer Prize and Critics Award feels that the torrid appellation generates more imagery.”—‘New York Times,’ 31 December, page 10>
Notice that in the 2nd 1954 quote above, we learn that Williams had originally called the play CAT ON A TIN ROOF (which I have also confirmed from other sources). Hmm. That’s interesting! Here Williams is telling us that he changed the name because the word HOT generates more imagery and in the Brewer’s article he claims that his pappy coined it. It could have been both, but on the face of it these two don’t quite seem to jibe, so I suspect that either Williams spoke with a forked tongue or Brewer’s or the New York Times got it wrong. My suspicion is that the daddy coinage might be false and Brewer’s, incidentally, offers no direct quotes to back up their assertion. In any event, it makes sense to me that CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF evolved from CAT ON A TIN ROOF. The only fly in the ointment, as far as the play name being the origin, is that first 1954 quote has the phrase being used about 4 month before the announcement of the play name change, although that quote doesn’t positively say that the name change occurred at exactly that time. So either the word on Williams’ new title was out when the first 1954 quote was made and they got the idea from him, or Williams actually got the idea from someone else who had coined it a little earlier, or he coined it himself (or got the idea from his pappy), or maybe the phrase emerged independently from more than one source.

From what I could determine, CAT ON A TIN ROOF appears to be a shortening of the older expression BUSY AS A CAT ON A TIN ROOF, the earliest example I could find being from 1907. A list of ‘proverbial comparisons’ from the state of Washington (see 1958 quote below) lists BUSY AS A CAT ON A TIN ROOF, implying that it was fairly old at that time. The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams (see 1997 quote below) quotes Williams himself as using this expression in October of 1954. And listed below are many examples attesting to the popularity of the expression and its shortened form both previous to the play and after. However, there cannot be much argument that CAT ON A TIN ROOF was the predecessor of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, since not only was the name of the original play, CAT ON A TIN ROOF, but Maggie’s famous closing line was also originally “and nothing’s more determined than A CAT ON A TIN ROOF – is there, Baby?” (see 1992 quote below). And also, of course, CAT ON A TIN ROOF had long before appeared in print as a stand-alone expression (see 1929 quote below).

And nearly finally, what does it mean to be BUSY AS A CAT ON A TIN ROOF and how did it originate? I can only guess that originally the expression had nothing to do with heat, but perhaps had to do with the fact that a tin roof, especially with a sharply pitched roof, was not so easy to keep one’s footing on – claws don’t do well in gripping tin or tin-plated iron, as early tin roofs were made of. So a cat on one of these roofs would have to spend a lot of its time and energy just trying not to slip off, and I get the visual of a cat slippin'-and-aslidin’ around on a steep tin roof. And this view is reinforced by the Stanford meaning of the expression ‘useless effort’ (originating in Texas) – see 1927 quote below. This would also tend to make the cat uneasy, nervous, and apprehensive, which is how CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF has come to be defined (see above). But what about the earlier expression LIKE A CAT ON HOT BRICKS, which basically meant the same thing (with the additional, but I think irrelevant to our discussion, ‘swift and nimble’)? It seems likely to me that these two expressions developed independently and perhaps either consciously or unconsciously melded together in the mind of either Williams’, and/or his father, and/or someone else.

And finally, why CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF for the title of the play? The ‘cat’ is, of course, Maggie (‘Maggie the Cat’) whose loneliness and unfulfilled love have filled her with anxiety and nervous agitation. And the added HOT – however it got there – just serves to intensify the meaning of that condition.
<1907 “There would appear to be enough work in all these diversions of the President [[Theodore Roosevelt]] to absorb even his superabundant energies and keep him AS BUSY AS A CAT ON A TIN ROOF, . . .”—‘Los Angeles Times,' 17 February, page II4>

<1920 “The Height of Business. Sir: Busy as a bird dog, busy as a hen with one chicken, BUSY AS A CAT ON A TIN ROOF—we have heard all these changes rung. But did you ever notice fourteen ushers retrieving a baseball fouled into a crowded grandstand?”—‘Chicago Daily Tribune,' 19 September, page 8>

<1927 “Stanford Expressions . . . . CAT ON A TIN ROOF—useless effort (Texas)"—‘American Speech,’ Vol. 2, No.6, March, page 275>

<1929 “The Busiest Man in the United States. Darn it! You can’t keep a good dry snooper [[vigilante who went after violators of prohibition]] off the front pages. . . . Talk about A CAT ON A TIN ROOF, he isn’t near as busy as a dry snooper.”—‘Chicago Daily Tribune,’ 5 July, page 14>

<1939 “Mrs. Tupper smiled. ‘Sounds AS BUSY AS A CAT ON A TIN ROOF to me.”—‘Los Angeles Times,’ 12 March, page J7>

<1950 “‘Don’t like to keep my [[jazz great Louis Armstrong]] friends waiting too long for answers. Being BUSIER THAN A CAT ON A TIN ROOF ain’t no excuse.’”—‘New York Times,’ 29 January, page 137>

<1958 "Busy as a cranberry merchant (one-armed paper hanger, CAT ON A TIN ROOF, bird dog).” —in ‘Western Folklore,' XI. 'Proverbial Comparisons,' #245, Vol. 2, No. 3, July, page 182>

<1997 “. . . but as Williams [[Tennessee]] told Maria Britneva in late October, he had kept as ‘busy as a “Cat on a Tin Roof!”’ (Angel, October 29, 1954, p. 103) through his well-known practice of urging revision upon playwrights who sought his prized direction.”—‘The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams’ by Roudane, page 104>

<1992 “Big Mama’s physical busyness signified a studied denial of the fact that her husband did not love her. Like Maggie, big Mama embodied the image of a CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF; and her actions were a physical manifestation of the frustrated love at the center of her life.” ibid. “. . . She ends the play by touching his [[Brick’s]] cheek gently after her speech: . . . ‘What you need is someone to take hold of you – gently, with love, and hand your life back to you, like something gold you let go of – and I can! I’m determined to do it – and nothing’s more determined than A CAT ON A TIN ROOF – is there, Baby?’”—‘Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan: A Collaboration in the Theatre’ by Murphy, page 120>
(Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase & Fable, Picturesque Expressions by Urdang, Oxford English Dictionary)

Ken G – January 4, 2006

Post Reply